Biggest Missing Piece of NFL's Fringe Contenders in 2023 Free Agency, Trades or Draft

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 19, 2023

Biggest Missing Piece of NFL's Fringe Contenders in 2023 Free Agency, Trades or Draft

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    Aaron Rodgers
    Aaron RodgersPatrick McDermott/Getty Images

    For eight NFL teams, the 2022 season has yet to end. But for three-quarters of the league, the focus has already turned to the offseason, toward gearing up for 2023.

    For some teams, that means a rebuild. In cities such as Chicago and Houston, expectations need to be tempered. Going from three wins to the playoffs isn't unheard of—the Jacksonville Jaguars picked first in 2022 and made the postseason—but it isn't especially likely.

    However, some teams barely missed the playoffs this season. Others made the tournament but were sent packing during Wild Card Weekend. For those teams, the playoffs are a realistic expectation—provided they address the deficiencies that ended their seasons and take care of the holes that develop for even the best teams every offseason.

    Each of the teams listed here won at least eight games. All are also watching the rest of the season unfold on TV just like us. And every one of them has a missing piece—part of the puzzle that must be filled in if the 2023 campaign is going to end on a better note.

    Some teams will look to swing an offseason trade to fill a hole with a big name. Franchises with cap space will look to the veteran free-agent market. And some will look to the draft in April to add the player that will hopefully put them over the top and into the postseason.

    But whatever the route, these teams need to find that missing piece to avoid another disappointing season in 2023.

    Salary-cap data courtesy of Over the Cap.

Baltimore Ravens: Wide Receiver

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    DeAndre Hopkins
    DeAndre HopkinsChristian Petersen/Getty Images

    For the sake of argument, we'll assume that the Baltimore Ravens reach some sort of agreement with quarterback Lamar Jackson, whether it's via a long-term contract or the franchise tag. If they don't, the position would rocket to the top of their offseason to-do list.

    But if they do, then the top offseason priority has to be improving the options around Jackson in the passing game. The Ravens traded Marquise Brown to the Arizona Cardinals last year and then did very little to replace him, and it showed. Baltimore was 28th in the league in passing, and its top wide receiver (Demarcus Robinson) didn't have 50 catches or 500 receiving yards.

    Even for a run-heavy team like the Ravens, that's not going to cut it. Since 2015, the Ravens have had just two 1,000-yard wideouts. And Brown (2021) and Mike Wallace (2016) cleared that threshold by less than 20 yards.

    Potential Targets

    DeAndre Hopkins, Arizona Cardinals: A trade for Hopkins won't come cheaply, and given Baltimore's cap situation, acquiring him wouldn't be easy. But Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta showed with the Roquan Smith trade that he's willing to be aggressive, and Hopkins would fill Baltimore's need for a No. 1 receiver.

    DJ Chark, Detroit Lions: Chark isn't going to excite Ravens fans, but if Baltimore burns most of its $28.9 million in cap space (and then some) on tagging Jackson, a second-tier free agent may be the best it can do. Chark quietly averaged 16.7 yards per reception this year, and he had a 1,000-yard season in 2019 with the Jaguars.

    Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Ohio State: Smith-Njigba's 2022 season was all but wiped out by injury, but at this time a year ago he was widely regarded as the No. 1 wideout in this year's draft class after catching 95 passes for 1,606 yards and nine touchdowns. He's also a polished route-runner who should be capable of producing from day one.

Detroit Lions: Cornerback

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    Joey Porter Jr.
    Joey Porter Jr.Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    On some level, the Detroit Lions probably expected to be heading into the offseason with a high draft pick and a need behind center. But after eight wins in 10 games to close out the season, the Lions will pick 18th (though they also have the Los Angeles Rams' No. 6 pick), and Jared Goff appears to be a more viable long-term option than many expected.

    However, while those dynamics have changed, another has not. The Lions need help defensively after finishing last in total defense and 30th against the pass.

    Jeff Okudah, the No. 3 pick in 2020, is coming off the best season of his career, and Jerry Jacobs has emerged as at least a capable starter in the slot. But the Lions badly need another starter opposite Okudah—that spot was a merry-go-round of mediocrity.

    Potential Targets

    Marcus Peters, Baltimore Ravens: At 30 years old, Peters isn't the player he used to be, as he allowed a passer rating of 113.7 last season. But Peters remains a decent starter and could provide a steadying veteran presence in the secondary. His next contract shouldn't be prohibitively expensive either.

    Troy Hill, Los Angeles Rams: If the Lions want to add veteran talent at cornerback without using a big chunk of their $15 million in cap space, Hill could make for a good target. The 31-year-old isn't a world-beater but has started 55 games in his career and has experience playing all over the back end.

    Joey Porter Jr., Penn State: The 6'2", 194-pound Porter is the top-ranked cornerback in this draft class, according to Bleacher Report's Scouting Department. He's a talented, physical player with all kinds of potential. If he is as advertised, Porter and Okudah could combine to form an imposing duo for years to come.

Green Bay Packers: Wide Receiver

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    Jalin Hyatt
    Jalin HyattTodd Kirkland/Getty Images

    There's one situation that looms large over the Green Bay Packers: the future of Aaron Rodgers. Jordan Love is entering his fourth season with all of 83 career pass attempts. If the Packers are going to turn to the future, then the once-inconceivable should be possible. Green Bay's moving on from another Hall of Fame quarterback. If it isn't ready to turn that page, Love's future with the team becomes murky.

    But regardless of who is out there, it's clear the Packers need to improve their passing game options. Christian Watson appears to have been a nice find in the 2022 draft, but there isn't much behind him, especially if impending free agent Allen Lazard doesn't return.

    Lazard's 60 catches and 788 receiving yards both led the team. Even if he is brought back, Green Bay needs to add talent around him and Watson. If Lazard leaves, a shaky wide receiver situation becomes that much more dire.

    Potential Targets

    Jakobi Meyers, New England Patriots: Meyers put together a solid season, hauling in 67 passes for 804 yards and six scores. The 26-year-old isn't an elite talent or the type of receiver who can carry the unit. But he's entering his prime and would be an excellent chain-moving complement to Watson and his ability to take the top off a defense.

    Rashee Rice, SMU: A 6'2" 203-pounder with excellent ball skills, Rice isn't a sure thing as a prospect. But Bleacher Report's Derrik Klassen likened him to Brandon Aiyuk of the San Francisco 49ers, and Rice and Watson could combine to form quite the one-two punch.

    Jalin Hyatt, Tennessee: Hyatt was a force for the Volunteers, catching 67 passes for 1,267 yards and 15 touchdowns on the way to winning the Biletnikoff Award as college football's No. 1 wide receiver. Hyatt's slender frame is a concern, but he and Watson could be a tremendous duo in the vertical passing game.

Los Angeles Chargers: Defensive Line

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    Siaki Ika
    Siaki IkaJohn E. Moore III/Getty Images

    It's going to be a while before the Los Angeles Chargers get over their postseason collapse against the Jaguars, which only further exposed something that became evident as the season progressed.

    The Bolts' front-line players may be good, but there's not that much behind them. Injuries to left tackle Rashawn Slater, cornerback J.C. Jackson and wide receiver Mike Williams exposed a lack of depth along the offensive line, at cornerback and at wide receiver.

    Those areas need to be addressed in the offseason. And with the Chargers already $19.9 million over the cap, it's going to be hard to make those improvements in free agency.

    But there's one need that looms even above those already mentioned. Los Angeles was pushed around at the point of attack, ranking 28th against the run.

    That needs to change.

    Potential Targets

    Shy Tuttle, New Orleans Saints: If the Chargers are going to add help in the defensive trenches in free agency, it will have to be with a lower-end free agent. Tuttle posted only two sacks in his fourth season, but he set a career high with 49 tackles and played well in run support. He'd be a quality add who wouldn't break the bank.

    Tuli Tuipulotu, USC: Tuipulotu was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, posting 46 tackles and 13.5 sacks. At 6'4" and 290 pounds, Tuipulotu would offer the Chargers scheme versatility. He has the size to play with a hand in the dirt in three- and four-man fronts and the quickness to kick outside.

    Siaki Ika, Baylor: Ika is a mountain of a defensive tackle, checking in at 6'4", 358 pounds. He impresses with his explosiveness and pass-rushing chops for a player his size. As Day 2 picks go, the Chargers would be hard-pressed to find one who would make a more immediate impact on defense.

Miami Dolphins: Offensive Line

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    George Fant
    George FantSteph Chambers/Getty Images

    There isn't going to be any shortage of speculation about the quarterback position for the Miami Dolphins this offseason. But general manager Chris Grier made it clear that Tua Tagovailoa is the starter, and we'll take him at his word.

    So, the biggest offseason priority isn't difficult to identify. The Dolphins have to improve an offensive line that has been a weakness for years.

    Miami has a stalwart left tackle in Terron Armstead, though he missed four games in 2022 and has missed time in each of his 10 seasons. Connor Williams is a capable veteran center. But right tackle Austin Jackson has been a disappointment, and he and left guard Liam Eichenberg were major liabilities this season.

    Potential Targets

    George Fant, New York Jets: There isn't much on the free-agent market at right tackle, and the Dolphins aren't in position to be big spenders even if there were. But Fant is an experienced tackle who has played on both ends of the line and started 60 games over six years with the Jets and Seattle Seahawks.

    O'Cyrus Torrence, Florida: A 6'5", 347-pounder, Torrence is rated as both the best pass-protecting guard in this class and the No. 1 interior lineman by Bleacher Report's Scouting Department. If he somehow dropped to the middle of Round 2, he would be a gift for the Dolphins.

    Dawand Jones, Ohio State: Jones started at right tackle for the Buckeyes over the past two seasons and didn't allow a sack in 2022. The 6'8" 359-pounder had issues with his weight but could make an impact for Miami.

New England Patriots: Wide Receiver

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    Brandin Cooks
    Brandin CooksCooper Neill/Getty Images

    The New England Patriots are heading into a pivotal offseason after narrowly missing the playoffs in 2022. There are holes on the roster that need to be addressed on both sides of the ball, whether it's the tackle spot on offense or at linebacker and cornerback on defense.

    But the biggest need for the Patriots is the same as it was a year ago—and seemingly the year before that.

    New England's spending spree at wide receiver wound up producing precious little return on investment. Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor have flashed at times but have failed to impress. Jakobi Meyers is the closest thing the Patriots have to a No. 1 receiver, and both he and Agholor are set to hit free agency.

    The Patriots are in relatively good shape against the cap, with $33 million in wiggle room. A chunk of that will likely be used in an effort to retain Meyers, but even if he does come back, the Patriots need to get better behind him.

    Potential Targets

    Brandin Cooks, Houston Texans: The Patriots may well be one of the teams that kick the tires on DeAndre Hopkins, but if that falls through, they could look to a familiar face in Cooks, who was nearly traded by the Texans at last year's deadline. Back in 2017, Cooks posted a 65/1,082/7 stat line on 114 targets with the Patriots.

    Parris Campbell, Indianapolis Colts: Campbell finally showed what he could do when healthy last season, setting career highs in catches (63), receiving yards (623) and touchdowns (3). His ability to rack up yards after the catch would mesh well with New England's quick passing game.

    Kayshon Boutte, LSU: The 2022 season wasn't especially kind to Boutte. His level of production dropped, and the 6'0", 205-pounder struggled with drops. However, Boutte's athleticism and potential are top-notch, and he has experience playing both in the slot and on the boundary.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Offensive Tackle

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    Peter Skoronski
    Peter SkoronskiRandy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    The Pittsburgh Steelers finished the 2022 season on a high note, winning six of seven to keep Mike Tomlin's streak of non-losing seasons intact. But while that hot finish offers Pittsburgh some reason for optimism heading into the offseason, the Steelers remain a team with flaws.

    And the biggest of those flaws isn't new.

    The offensive line has long been an issue in the Steel City, and while that unit was better in 2022 than the year before, starting tackles Dan Moore Jr. and Chukwuma Okorafor are average players on a good day and liabilities on a bad one.

    Unfortunately, if the Steelers are going to make improvements along the offensive front (or anywhere else, for that matter), it's likely going to have to be in the draft. The Steelers have less than $2 million in cap space and in-house free agents like linebacker Robert Spillane and safety Terrell Edmunds to address.

    Potential Targets

    Peter Skoronski, Northwestern: Bleacher Report's top tackle prospect in the 2023 draft, Brandon Thorn called Skoronski "a technician with nimble movement skills, excellent balance, an advanced understanding of leverage and spatial awareness that puts him in consistently good positions before, during and after contact."

    Darnell Wright, Tennessee: A powerful, athletic and young tackle with experience at both left and right tackle, Wright shined against top-notch competition in the SEC. At worst, the 6'5", 335-pound prospect offers the team an excellent swing option. At best, he'd be a Day 1 starter and an immediate upgrade on the right side of the line.

    Matthew Bergeron, Syracuse: At 6'5" and 320 pounds, Bergeron has all the tools to be a difference-maker at the NFL level, whether it's length, strength, agility or athleticism. He's a bit more of a project as a player, but given his physical gifts, he has the potential to become an excellent tackle capable of playing on either end of the line.

Seattle Seahawks: Defensive Line

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    Daron Payne
    Daron PayneCooper Neill/Getty Images

    By just about any reasonable measurement, the Seattle Seahawks exceeded expectations. In what was supposed to be a rebuilding year, the Seahawks won nine games and made the playoffs.

    Geno Smith went from a one-year bridge player at quarterback to the Pro Bowl. And thanks to Denver's collapse this season, Seattle owns a top-five pick and a total of two selections inside the top 20.

    Those picks need to be spent on defense.

    Simply put, the Seahawks weren't good on that side of the ball in 2022, especially against the run. Only two NFL teams allowed more rushing yards per game than the 150.2 the Seahawks surrendered. Seattle posted a respectable 45 sacks this season, and Uchenna Nwosu and Darrell Taylor each had 9.5, but more pop on the edge would also be welcome.

    The fifth overall pick likely won't get them Alabama's Will Anderson Jr., but it should get the Seahawks an impact player in the front seven.

    Potential Targets

    Daron Payne, Washington Commanders: In addition to that draft capital, the Seahawks also have about $34.3 million in cap space—enough to potentially attract a high-end free agent like Payne, who piled up career highs in tackles (64) and sacks (11.5) on the final season of his rookie deal with the Commanders.

    Jalen Carter, Georgia: The 6'3", 300-pound Carter is widely regarded as the best interior lineman in the class and one of the best overall prospects regardless of position. His first-step explosiveness and disruptive ability is off the charts, and B/R's Matt Holder compared Carter to the great Warren Sapp.

    Tyree Wilson, Texas Tech: Regarded by some as the 2023 class' best edge-rusher not named Will Anderson Jr., Wilson is an athletic 6'6" 275-pounder who could be used as a chess piece all over the defensive front. Over the past two seasons, he has amassed a gaudy 99 total tackles and 27.5 sacks.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Quarterback

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    Tom Brady
    Tom BradyCliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are at a crossroads. The Bucs won the NFC South again in 2022, but they did so as an 8-9 team. And with Tom Brady about to hit free agency for the second time in his career, the prevailing school of thought appears to be that if Brady does play again in 2023, it will be for a different team.

    To say that creates a need for the Buccaneers is the mother of all understatements.

    Blaine Gabbert is a backup in the NFL and nothing more. Youngster Kyle Trask has done nothing to indicate that he's a viable possibility either. If either of those players is the Week 1 starter for the Bucs, the team is waving the white flag on 2023—it's as simple as that.

    If Brady returns or the team makes a splash addition under center, Tampa has the talent to make another run at the playoffs. But if Jason Licht whiffs on the quarterback position this year, then the Buccaneers might as well blow the roster up.

    Because it's rebuild time.

    Potential Targets

    Tom Brady, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Sometimes, the devil you know is better than the devil you don't. Brady isn't the player he once was, but he's still an above-average NFL starter. If he's willing to run it back one more time with familiar faces and a roster he knows can compete for a playoff spot, then Tampa's best case in 2023 is probably the status quo.

    Derek Carr, Las Vegas Raiders: Carr is coming off a disappointing 2022 season, but the 31-year-old is an experienced NFL starter with a career completion percentage near 65 percent and a passer rating north of 90. He's also a good deep-ball passer, which would make Mike Evans happy. If Brady bolts, Carr is the best Plan B available.

    Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers: The good news with Garoppolo would be that Tampa wouldn't have to potentially give up draft picks, and his salary would be lower than Carr and Brady. He's also a proven winner at the NFL level. But Garoppolo doesn't have the arm talent that Brady or Carr has, and after yet another injury-shortened season, his durability is a genuine concern.

Washington Commanders: Quarterback

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    Anthony Richardson
    Anthony RichardsonChris Leduc/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    It's a time of great change in the nation's capital. By the time the Commanders next take the field, it will probably be for a different owner. And new ownership groups tend to shake things up to remold the franchise as they wish.

    There have been reports that as the Commanders search for a new offensive coordinator, the team is telling interviewees that Sam Howell is the team's projected 2023 starter. However, that doesn't mean that won't change, only that of the players currently on the roster, Howell is the guy.

    With all due respect to Howell (who played fairly well in a Week 18 win over the Cowboys), he was a fifth-round pick last year for a reason. In a division with Jalen Hurts, Dak Prescott and a resurgent Daniel Jones, Howell isn't leading the Commanders out of last place in the division.

    Whether it's in free agency, via trade or early in the 2023 draft, the new regime in Washington will want to pursue an upgrade at the game's most important position.

    And if Taylor Heinicke departs in free agency, the Commanders could be in the market for a new backup as well.

    Potential Targets

    Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers: This is admittedly a longshot, but if the Commanders' new owner wants to make the biggest splash possible, a trade for Rodgers would most assuredly accomplish that. In terms of the roster around him, the Commanders really wouldn't be a bad spot for Rodgers, and Washington would be a legit contender the minute he strolled through the door.

    Jacoby Brissett, Cleveland Browns: Brissett isn't a player who will inject excitement into a fanbase tired of mediocre quarterback play. But were he to be signed in free agency, it would be as veteran insurance behind Howell and a mentor of sorts for the youngster. Say what you will about Brissett, but the 30-year-old was quietly eighth in QBR in 2022.

    Anthony Richardson, Florida: Richardson has been mentioned as a potential target for the Commanders with the 16th overall pick. It would certainly be a gutsy selection, as Richardson is immensely talented and athletic, but he's far from a finished product as a passer. Pairing Richardson and Brissett as a future/present combination package is an idea that has some merit.